Tag Archives: church history

‘Gutenberg’s Apprentice’ a superb novel

November 25, 2014

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Gutenbergs ApprenticePrinting history and church history mesh to make for compelling reading in the terrific first novel of Alix Christie, “Gutenberg’s Apprentice.”

Protagonist Peter Schoeffer is the apprentice of the title, and there’s no fiction there: Schoeffer was Gutenberg’s apprentice in the 1450s as the German’s workshop developed moveable type and used it to print 180 copies of the Bible.

The fictional story comes from Ms. Christie’s imagination, but there’s hearty research behind the tale, particularly when it comes to the details of printing and the hurdles that elements of the church put in Gutenberg’s way. Interdicts on dioceses and conflicts between archbishops and religious communities are fact and a dark part of church history.

Gutenberg gets credit for combining the various elements needed for mass production of printed matter. He pulled together dozens of ideas and technological advances systematically, including the creation of metal type, ink and the press itself. But in the novelist’s hands the much-lauded inventor, talented as he is, is schizophrenic. One moment he’s praising his apprentice for his marvelous gifts and telling the tradesmen in his workshop that he couldn’t have printed his Bible without them, and the next he’s taking all the credit, declaring that he did it all alone and needed no one’s help.

Through Schoeffer, who in real life went on to become one of the first publishers of note in Europe, Christie presents a spiritual element to the process that brought about not just the first printed Bible but an invention that was key to the Renaissance and often named as the greatest invention of all time.

Christie’s  Schoeffer sees his part in the drama as one divinely led, that God has placed him in his time and his place to use the gifts he’s been given to be a part of this amazing fete that will change life on earth.

“You always did think that you had some private pact with God,” a life-long acquaintance charges Gutenberg’s apprentice.

Author Christie answers for her story’s hero: Of course. How could he not. . . . How could he have understood his own life otherwise?

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Breuer and the Benedictines build a church

October 2, 2014

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Here’s the story of how a famous architect and the liturgy-reforming monks of St. John’s Abbey collaborated to create a very special modern church in the middle of Minnesota.

abbey church coverFor more than 50 years, motorists and passengers on I-94 some 60 miles north of the Twin Cities have seen an enormous concrete structure peeking above the treetops to the south as they near the exit for Collegeville and St. John’s University.

The flat trapezoid, the row of bells and the cross in the cutout at the top are a beacon for the modern wonder of a church below.

Now the story of how that massive architectural masterpiece came to be has been captured in a University of Minnesota Press book, “Saint John’s Abbey Church: Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred Space.”

Victoria M. Young, with access to never-before-seen archives from both the abbey and the architect, tells the story of the development of the history-making worship space. Young is a professor and the chair of the art history department at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

As she gives the behind-the-scenes details of the planning for and building of the Abbey Church, Young persistently reminds readers why this worship space is architecturally significant.

Several keys to success

Nestled as it is in the middle of the country, far from the architectural centers on either coast, the Abbey Church was:

  • Designed by a famous architect, Marcel Breuer.
  • The architect collaborated with his client — the Benedictine monks at St. John’s Monastery.
  • Their collaboration called for the use modern materials, modern engineering and modern construction methods.
  • Their goal was to create a worship space for the modern Catholic liturgy, the laity-including Mass that the monks themselves had experimented with and championed as leaders in the 20th century liturgical movement.

abbey monks & architects“The collaboration between the Benedictines and Marcel Breuer and his architectural team reveals important themes in mid-century religious architecture,” Young noted.

“Central to the subject is how the building operates as a vessel for the reformed liturgy, reconciling the visions of a modern architect and the traditions of his monastic patrons.”

Liturgical leaders

Beginning in the 1920s, St. John’s had become the American center of the liturgical movement due to the passionate efforts of its monks, notably Father Virgil Michel. The reform liturgy stressed the participation of the laity in the Mass, the use of the vernacular (the language of the people instead of Latin) and the repositioning of the altar so that the priest faced the people as he led them in prayer.

The result was that Breuer designed a worship space with no pillars blocking views and no seat more than 85 feet from the altar.abbey drawing interior

“This building project announced the Benedictines as leaders of liturgical reform within monasticism and confirmed Marcel Breuer’s position as one of the most innovative architects of the mid-century,” Young wrote.

“Their relationship was an architectural collaboration of the highest level. Knowledgeable clients carefully delivered a plan for reinvigorated worship and liturgy to a skillful architect, who sensitively shaped a space to support it.”

With access to letters between Breuer and the monks and to the architect’s handwritten notes on drafts of the design plans, Young is able to answer questions such as why did the monks want Breuer, and why did Breuer want the job.

Ahead of the liturgical curve

With the project first beginning in 1953, construction started in 1958 and completed in 1961, the building of this modern worship space preceded the promulgation of the new liturgy by Pope Paul VI by several years.

“The Benedictines were looking beyond their history as they planned their church,” Young told The Catholic Spirit. “Both the monks and Breuer took a leap of faith.”

Although he was a well-regarded architect, Breuer had never designed a church, she said.

“Architects want to explore different things, different building types,” Young added. “Designing a church was really interesting to him.”

Breuer also liked the project because the commission was for a campus master plan. “He liked the scale of the project,” Young said.

And the monk’s desire for a modern church allowed for the use of modern materials, specifically concrete, just coming into fashion for architectural design after World War II.

“Breuer loved the ability to shape and create space,” Young said, “and concrete gave him the ability to do that.”

Building the Abbey Church also put St. Paul construction company McGough on the map. “Larry McGough told me that it changed their company,” Young said. The experience that McGough’s team derived from developing new ways to build and the notoriety from having built the Abbey Church set McGough on a trajectory to do other large projects.

An architect who listened

The author repeatedly pulls readers back to one point, that it was the collaboration between the Benedictines and Breuer that was crucial to the outcome.

Breuer was one of five architects with great reputations who the monks invited to Collegeville to discuss their vision for the church they wanted to build. It was April 17, 1953.

“A powerful moment occurs when Breuer comes to St. John’s and he doesn’t speak much the whole first day,” Young said.

Instead, Breuer asked questions and listened to the Benedictines about their vision for their church. That was the kind of collaborative relationship the monks sought.

“They wanted to engage a designer of great character,” Young wrote, “someone who would listen as well as inform, a designer with whom they could collaborate to create significant monastic and liturgical space that would serve their order for the coming century.”

As a result, during the three-year construction period many modifications in Breuer’s design were made because of input from the monks.

“Shaping space around the new liturgy was, for the Benedictines, central to their role in the Catholic world, and their church needed to uphold this mission,” Young noted.

The full story

“Saint John’s Abbey Church,” while underscoring the compatibility of Breuer and the Benedictines, includes no small amount of space to the tensions that rose as the project went on.

There’s significant coverage of the disagreement about who should design the most significant work of art in the building, the huge stained glass window that makes up almost the entirety of the north wall. Breuer wanted Bauhaus artist Josef Albers; the monks chose Bronislaw Bak, a
St. John’s faculty member.

abbey window“Even today,” Young pointed out, “Bak’s window is still a source of debate for the monks and scholars. “Many at Collegeville wonder how Albers’ window would have changed the space and feeling of the church.”

Nor does the book ignore that fact that not everyone likes the Abbey Church.

“Not all were ready for such a brazen statement within religious architecture,” Young pointed out.

“For many, modernism was not an appropriate building style for the Catholic faith.”

Critics used terms to describe the Abbey Church such as “devoid of beauty,” “utilitarian” and an “ecclesiastical garage.”

abbey photo of interiorOthers, however, admired it, calling the Abbey Church “the most exciting thing in church architecture since Michelangelo’s great dome,” “one of the great sacred buildings of our time” and “a milestone in the evolution of the architecture of the Catholic Church in this country.”

Young, a member of Our Lady of Angels parish in Minneapolis and a Minnesota native who grew up in Comfrey in the southwestern part of the state, said that although she specializes in modern architectural history, she appreciates more traditional church designs as well.

Church architecture typically reflects the vision of “a group of people trying to figure out what would be good for that moment,” she said. “There’s a reason why it exists.

“When people say, ‘This is not a vessel for the liturgy,’ I say, ‘Have you been there?’ ”

Related events:

  • VictoriaYoungFriday, Oct. 24, 7 p.m.: Evening Prayer in the Abbey and University Church in Collegeville, followed at 7:45 p.m. by a talk by author Victoria M. Young, “Breuer and the Benedictines: A Modern Collaboration,” in the Abbey Chapter House. Book signing and reception afterward.
  • Saturday, Oct. 25, 10 a.m.: Tour of the Abbey and University Church by Victoria M. Young. 11:15 to noon: Book signing in the St. John’s University bookstore.
  • Sunday, Nov. 16, 2 p.m.: Reading, reception and book signing in the sanctuary of Christ Church Lutheran, 3244 34th Ave. S., Minneapolis.
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‘Brother Hugo and the Bear’: cute and informative

May 8, 2014

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brother hugo and the bearAuthor Katy Beebe has crafted a cute story from a sliver of what may or may not be a true anecdote from the 12th century. Did a bear really devour much of one monastery’s copy of St. Augustine’s letters to St. Jerome?

Beebe’s fictional Brother Hugo gets the task of replacing it, and a good chunk of the tale illustrates how manuscripts were created by the monks in those monasteries in the Middle Ages.

Illustrates is the perfect word, too, because artist S.D. Schindler’s superb use of the style of those medieval illuminators adds a whimsical period touch that puts the story into the proper historical timeframe.

This is not just a good tale for young readers but an educational one as well.

There’s church and human history embedded in the Eerdmans book, with salutes to those ancient monasteries, the Benedictine’s Cluny and the Cistercian’s La Grande Chartreuse, and even a glossary that includes both church and manuscript making vocabularies.

What a nice idea, and nicely done.

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You’ve never read or seen church history like this

July 28, 2011

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It’s a brilliant idea, executed brilliantly: Tell the history of the church — warts and all — through classic paintings.

Duquesne University Press has pulled it off in “The History of the Church through 100 Masterpieces” (http://www.dupress.duq.edu/pubDetails.asp?theISBN=9780820704371).

From Caravaggio’s famous “Crucifixion of St. Peter” (head down, you remember), through Durer’s “The Martyrdom of Ten Thousand Christians,” the spread of Christianity through various regions by various artists, excommunications, schisms, crusades, popes, anti-popes, the Inquisition, Franciscans, Benedictines, Paul Thumann’s “Luther at the Diet of Worms,” even the martyrs of the New World and Japan.

There’s the “The Consecration of Napoleon” by Jacques-Louis David that dominates most of a wall in the high-ceiling-ed Louvre. There are artistic depictions of the sacraments, including the beautiful “Holy Viaticum in Burgundy” by Aime Perret that hangs in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. And there’s the haunting piece by Paul Delaroche, “Cardinal Henri Beaufort Interrogating Joan of Arc” from the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Rouen, France.

I found I had a smattering of knowledge of many of the events pictured, but although the text paired with each painting is just one page, authors Jacques Duquesne and Francois Legrette pack it with interesting detail — detail both about that period of church history and also about the painting and the painter. M. Cristina Borges translated from the original French.

This is just a superb, enjoyable work, and worth every bit of the $29.95 retail price.

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Father John Forliti’s new book offers ‘Ten Anchors’ every Catholic — especially teens and young adults — ought to know and cherish

December 8, 2010

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New book by Father John Forliti

Father John Forliti wants to make it difficult for teen and young adult Catholics to miss out on the satisfying, hope-filled, “anchoring” gift that Catholic life offers.

The retired pastor who is now a high school chaplain believes that young people will grow personally and both the church and society will benefit if younger folks know more about their church, if they see the good that people of faith have brought to the world, and if they realize that the church values what they value.

Already the author of a double-handful of books, many which deal with values and choices, Father Forliti has put together a compact, 75-page paperback that may just be an answer to keeping younger Catholics from drifting away from their baptismal faith.

At the heart of Catholic life

“Ten Anchors” presents just that, 10 solid values, ideas and elements of Catholic life that are key “for navigating the sea of life,” as Father John puts it.

Each chapter offers the long-time priest-educator’s reflection on a dimension of the church that he considers at the heart of the Roman Catholic experience:

  • Compassion;
  • Social Justice;
  • Moral Tradition;
  • Jesus;
  • The Eucharist;
  • Reverence for Life;
  • Respect for the Mind;
  • Easter People;
  • Roman and Catholic;
  • Mary and the Saints.

Much good news to share

As with most of the writing by this 73-year-old priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, “Ten Anchors” is filled with stories – and they’re “good news” stories. That’s a strength, because as Father Forliti notes, secular sources readily share all that can discourage young people from being connected to religion.

“In its 2,000-year history,” he notes, “the Catholic Church has done it all, both the best and the worst. While others may choose to write about its failures, this book will focus on its successes.”

Readers will learn, for example, about the compassion of the founders of religious communities, about the work of Catholic Charities, the principles of Catholic Social Teaching, the values embedded in the Ten Commandments, the Catholic scientists throughout history who have enlightened humankind, the rationale for Catholic belief on the sacredness of life.

Father Forliti invites his readers to “walk with me through the Mass from beginning to end,” explaining the major parts of the Eucharistic liturgy “and how it might speak to you.”

Textbook-like usefulness

Each chapter concludes with three brief sections that solidify the teaching on that chapter’s topic.

First there are a handful of lines that concisely summarize why that dimension of the church is so important.

Father John follows with suggestions for how to incorporate that dimension into one’s life. These are down-to-earth suggestions: Memorize the Ten Commandments; study Catholic history – don’t be satisfied with hearsay; read a biography of an American saint; choose an agency or cause you can support with prayers and financial help, “no matter how small”; choose a Gospel and “walk” through it, noting the words, actions and feelings of Jesus. “What is it he is saying to you, what is he doing that impresses you, and what is he feeling that inspires you?”

Finally, each chapter concludes with a short prayer.

“Ten Anchors” is a book that will make a great add-on to any faith formation efforts for those in the later years of high school and older teens and young adults. Youth ministers and young adult ministers may want to check it out as a 10-week series. Older adults will find it valuable as well as a refresher course.

It’s a well-written, well-edited capsulation of the dimensions of Catholic life that, from his years on the faculty of the University of St. Thomas, as pastor of St. Olaf in downtown Minneapolis, and now as chaplain at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul, Father Forliti knows must be handed on to the next generation. — bz

“Ten Anchors” is available from the author for $12.95. Contact Father Forliti at jeforliti@comcast.net. It is also available at http://www.lulu.com.

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Catholic and want to know more about Jesus?

June 28, 2010

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Jesus cover

“Jesus,”

by Paul Johnson

Ever felt uncomfortable discussing religion in a mixed-faith setting because you don’t feel you’ve really “kept up” with matters of faith?

Paul Johnson’s brief (226 pages) easy-reading story of Jesus — subtitled “A Biography from a Believer” — will get you up to speed with some facts Catholics should know. It will also remind you what Christianity values and why you value your faith life. Johnson is an unabashed cheerleader for the faith, and he writes early on that he wants to share “the joy and nourishment” of following Jesus’ footsteps and pondering his words.

Although I’ve read a lot of religious material, reading “Jesus” gave me a much better mental picture of the era in which he walked this earth, helping me place his life in the time of not just Julius Caesar but Ovid, Livy and Seneca, the Romans whose writing has put life in the Roman Empire into our hands.

But I’d hesitate before giving Johnson my complete trust as a biographer or historian, and I think he’d find that perfectly acceptable.

Meet a new Jesus

In my notes I kept jotting down “first I’ve heard of that,” which did make me suspicious that some of Johnson’s “biography” might be suspect. For example, he writes that Mary was a source for Luke’s gospel, that Jesus’ baptism was witnessed by a large crowd, that one task of the apostles was to “protect” Jesus, and that Jesus’ “few days of rest were spent fishing.”

What these might very well be called would be “guesses.” Johnson says they are “mere deductive supposition.” When he describes Jesus’ appearance and the way he held himself, I’d call that analysis without basis of fact. Yes, Jesus did teach at meal time, but did he “love” to?

But whether or not Jesus could recite Homer and Virgil is less important than the aura of Jesus that I think readers will get about the subject of this “biography.” You’ll meet a new Jesus here, one you’ve likely never thought about in the same way.

Johnson offers us a pleasant, colloquial way of absorbing Jesus’ teachings in somewhat of a condensed version of the gospels, and he follows up by explaining why Jesus taught those lessons.

Don’t miss the homilies

The most useful section of the book may be Johnson’s explanation of why Jesus came and what Johnson charges might be a “New Ten Commandments” Jesus taught. You can see the list below, but it’s Johnson’s writes a page or more about each, and every one could serve as a homily worth hearing.

Johnson calls Jesus’ teachings a moral and social framework that have been invaluable to our world, and, if this book were this section alone it would be enough to inspire every Christian to re-commit themselves to following Jesus’ more closely. Here’s the best part:

“Human progress has proved an illusion as often as not. In many ways our society is no better organized and led than in those weary days two m ago when men like Herod and Pilate ruled. Insofar as we have improved — in the way we look after the poor, the sick, the infirm, the powerless; in our treatment of children; in moral education and training; in penology and the redressing of grievances; in the effort to spread material welfare and to encourage people to show kindness to one another and help their neighbors in difficult times — these improvements have come about because we have had the sense, the sensibility, the intelligence, and the pertinacity to follow where Jesus led. If goodness has a place in our twenty-first century world, it is because Jesus, by his worlds and actions, showed us how to put it there. No other man in history has had this effect over so long a time, over the whole of the earth’s surface, and over such a range of issues.”

If that’s not enough evidence to believe in God, I don’t know what would be. — bz

“Jesus’ New Ten Commandments”

1. Each of us must develop a true personality. We have a duty to be aware of our existence as an act of God’s creation

2. Accept and abide by, universality. Each soul is unique, but each is part of humanity.

3. Respect the fact that we are all equal in God’s eyes.

4. Love is a must in human relationships, at all times and in every situation.

5. We are to show mercy just as God shows mercy to us.

6. Keep balanced; don’t be an extremist.

7. Cultivate an open mind.

8. The pursuit of truth, unabridged, simple and pure, unstained by passion, is the most valuable of human activities.

9. Use power carefully, and pay due respect to the powerless.

10. Show courage.

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Tales from Minnesota

June 15, 2009

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“Pilgrims to the Northland,”

by Marvin R. O’Connell

The story of the how a Catholic archdiocese took root on the bluffs along the upper Mississippi River is chock full of stories — stories about the people who planted those roots and those that nurtured them, stories that will enlightne you, force a chuckle out of you, perhaps even shock you.

Marvin O’Connell tells as many as he could fit into 615 pages of this early history of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Take this lovely anecdote:

When a German-speaking Benedictine priest served the fledgling Bohemian parish of St. Wenceslaus in New Prague back in 1859, a unique way to overcome the language barrier was devised so that the Czech-speaking parishioners could confess their sins via an interpreter. Father O’Connell writes:

“The priest faced the penitent, and both of them were separated from the interpreter by a thin wall. The priest enunciated in turn the Ten Commandments in German, which the interpreter translated loudly into Bohemian. The penitent either nodded — meaning he had transgressed in that regard — or shook his head in denial. Thus secrecy was observed and embarrassment avoided, and sacramental absolution could be duly administered.”

No mere ecclesial history

There is a minimum of the kind of statistical growth numerology that populates too many accounts of church history. Instead, Father O’Connell puts the history of the Catholic Church in the United States — and of U.S. Catholics — into its national and international perspectives, always with human touches.

So valuable are the introductory pages to each chapter that explain what was going on in the nation — or in the world — at a particular juncture in time between 1840 and 1962, where O’Connell ends this work. As much as he can the priest of the archdiocese and University of Notre Dame professor emeritus helps readers understand what shaped the church that straddles the Mississippi today, and especially what — and who — was responsible for making that happen.

Of course bishops and archbishops play major roles, with the iconic John Ireland taking over the stage by force of length of service from the community’s earliest days through the early 20th century, and by force of personality. It was Archbishop Ireland’s presence on the national stage as the spearhead of Americanization — that movement that promoted the concept that this new land of freedom was the best place for the Catholic faith to flourish, and that freedom and faith were the best of partners.

Not everyone agreed, including some in high places in the church both in the United States and at the Vatican.

O’Connell covers the controversy with balance, framing well the crucial questions that made the controversy so volatile. As European immigrants arrived, he asks,

“Did they, once landed in New York or Philadelphia, discard their language, their traditions, their folkways, in short their nationality? And did the Catholics among them, faced by a culture created and dominated for two and a half centuries by Protestant Anglo-Saxons an Scotch-Irish, discard their faith? These were the crucial questions confronting the American bishops in the 1880s. and they intertwined to form another: to what degree did the preservation of the immigrants’ faith depend upon maintaining the habits and customs of the old country?”

Ireland was of the mind that immigrants had to untie the apron strings to the old country and become American in order to be respected and take their rightful place in order that their faith influence American culture.

Heroes among the priests

The challenges that had to be overcome by the area’s episcopal leaders fills pages, to be sure, but O’Connell spends just as much if not more time on some of his priest heroes, people from the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese who have influenced both the world and the church. He lovingly gives credit, too, to the women religious — the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in particular — for their selfless service to the People of God not just in the Twin Cities but across Minnesota and the Dakotas, as the Diocese of St. Paul was originally defined.

Generous oil man Ignatius A. O’Shaughnessy is granted his due in this history, too.

But two priests capture many pages, and deservedly so, because they influenced so many others, both clergy and lay.

There is the passionate teacher and advocate for social justice, Monsignor John A. Ryan, who grew up on a farm in rural Vermillion Township and became an adviser to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Labeled “The Right Reverend New Dealer,” Ryan was the architect and advocate of social justice principles that are now woven into the texture of American life: the minimum wage, a progressive income tax, the eight-hour work day, unemployment insurance, etc.

The early adopters of the Liturgical Movement, Benedictine Dom Virgil Michel, the St. Paul Seminary’s Father William Busch get well deserved notice, but historical ink tells us more about Father John Bussard, a founder of the Leaflet Missal and Catholic Digest, which in 1936 enjoyed a circulation of a million copies a month.

Bussard — in 1938 mind you — convinced Archbishop John Gregory Murray — to have the altar in the lower crypt of the new Nativity of Our Lord Church in St. Paul to be free standing, so that at Mass the priest faced the congregation and the worshipers could see and follow his actions at the altar and pray with him from their vernacular missals.

Father Bussard had argued, “The one thing necessary is to unite the faithful closely with Christ. Can that ever be done by a priest who stands with his back to them and reads Sacred Scripture to a wall?”

O’Connell faithfully reports the successes and the failures of archbishops Grace, Dowling, Murray, Brady and Byrne, but it is Paul Bussard and John A. Ryan who he calls “the two most influential Minnesota Catholics” during the middle third of the 20th century.

“Their influence spread far beyond the confines of their native state. Their approach to events and their manner of dealing with challenges, no less than the theaters in which they played out their roles, were very different. But a ‘golden thread of Catholic thou
ght’ did bind them together to a degree Bussard’s crusade for liturgical renewal — its insistence on the unity and participation of the whole worship community — possessed an unmistakable collective component, which Ryan’s tireless drive for social and racial justice derived directly from his conviction that Jesus had called for a communal solution to the problems of the ages.”

The war that changed everything

Archbishop Murray’s opposition to the Nazis is part of the history, including his invitation to his priests to volunteer to be chaplains during World War II. The archbishop promised that any curate (associate pastor) who volunteered to be a chaplain would be named a pastor after the “inevitable triumph” (Murray’s words). He kept his word.

It was the aftermath of World War II that changed Catholic status in the United States, O’Connell opines.

The G.I. Bill of Rights destroyed the traditional American class system. Young Catholics who before the war never dreamed of going to college or owning their own homes took advantage of the G.I.Bill to earn college degrees and enter the professions and management ranks, “and so participated fully in the expanding economy as they moved their big, bustling families into secure new homes.” O’Connell’s analysis?”

“In short, Catholics achieved what John Ireland had striven so hard for: they became part of the great American middle class. And in 1960 one of their own was elected president of the United States.”

Unfortunately a review can touch only a fraction of the topics and tales Father O’Connell shares, and that’s how it should be. Buy the book.

At $70, this University of Notre Dame Press tome is pricey, but it’s great reading. O’Connell has a marvelous literary style with clever segues and a timely sense of humor. For example, at the installation Mass for Coadjutor Archbishop Murray, there were 5,000 worshipers (“nine of whom fainted during the lengthy ceremony”), O’Connell inserts.

Some of the history is admittedly not what a public relations person might put forward, but then O’Connell’s task was history, not PR, and the author doesn’t shy from the seamy side of Catholic history. There were some disreputable characters in this neck of the woods over the course of the years.

The very best anecdotes are from priests he interviewed who shared the stories of their own encounters in the seminary, parish or chancery office that add in sight and color as to what Catholic life was really like.

Finally, Father O’Connell’s personal memories inserted into many footnotes add humanity to this scholarly work. Don’t pass them by. — bz

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Sex and a 17th century pope? More innuendo than facts, but lots of interesting facts, too

September 15, 2008

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“MISTRESS OF THE VATICAN,”
by Eleanor Herman

When I’m at the bookstore or library I tend to pick up anything that has “Vatican” in the title, so I couldn’t pass up something as titillating as “Mistress of the Vatican” when publisher William Morrow offered a review copy.

The jacket cover suggested hanky-panky with the bare-shouldered portrait of a beautiful woman with a painting of St. Peter’s Basilica and Square covering her, uh, feminine charms, and a subtitle, “The True Story of Olimpia Maidalchini: The Secret Female Pope.”

The adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover still applies.

Author Eleanor Herman offers no real evidence that 17th century Pope Innocent X had a sexual relationship with Olimpia, his sister-in-law, as the term “mistress” would suggest.

She offers no facts that Olimpia was pope, although she apparently was extremely influential in papal decisions.

Even the cover artwork is misleading: You’d think that the beautiful woman depicted is Olimpia, but no; the jacket painting is of “Venus at the Mirror,” by Tiziano.

Despite that, this book was hard to put down.

She’s done the research

Herman has culled the diaries and papers of Vatican officials of the period and the works of commentators during the mid 1600s, and what she’s come up with are some things about our church at the time that today we’d consider unthinkable. The nepotism, the bribery, the selling of church offices, the misuse of church funds — they saturate these 419 pages, and that’s without the bibliography and index.

Even those of us who love our church ought to know that at times in the past some pretty ridiculous things have been done in the name of our faith. Herman points out the silliness of some of the practices surrounding relics, for one thing. An Italian church claimed to have preserved the umbilical cord of Jesus, another drops of the Virgin Mary’s breast milk.

What gets tiresome, though, is the author’s tendency to slip into extended “filler” — background information that seemingly has little or nothing to do with the story of Donna Olimpia and her brother-in-law the pope.

Early on she extrapolates the cultural mores of the era and presumes much. While there is no factual evidence that Olimpia did this or that, women of the times did things this way, so Olimpia must have as well, she posits. It’s a bit too much innudendo for my taste.

Evidence shows Olimpia’s influence

There seems to be little doubt, though, that the widow of Pope Innocent X’s brother was extremely influential in day-to-day decisions concerning the Papal States. The evidence author Herman brings to light shows that Olimpia’s fingerprints are on the appointments of cardinals, on the finances of the church, on the church’s relationship with the governments and royalty of nations such as France and Spain, among others, and much, much more.

Be ready to read a boatload of language pointing out how anti-woman the Catholic Church is and has been through the ages. And the author uses some misleading descriptions that makes you wonder if she made this stuff up or is actually quoting some 17th century theologian or document.

Take Holy Orders: She writes that priestly ordination was “a sacrament that was thought to tattoo the human soul with an invisible but ineradicable seal that prevented marriage.”

Tattoo the soul?

I hadn’t heard that one before. But then, I really hadn’t been up on some of the less-flattering history of our church, like the regular elevation of papal nephews to rank of cardinal although they might still be in their teens, the regular practice of popes to appoint their relatives to jobs in the Vatican, the fawning of European royalty to curry the pope’s favor with expensive gifts, etc.

The saving grace is that at some point Innocent did have a crisis of conscience and put the dignity and integrity of the church first, and that many of the laughable practices of those times are long gone.

So read this. It’s not sexy. It promises one thing and delivers another, but it’s still a good read. — bz

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